This week’s parasha, Yitro, begins: “So Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons… to the desert where [Moses] was encamped, to the mountain of God.” (Exodus 18:2-5) After the Israelites safely made it to Mt. Sinai following the Exodus, Moses’ family returned to join him. However, we had previously read that when Moses first left Midian for Egypt before the Exodus, he had taken his family with him! (Exodus 4:20) Where did they go? Rashi answers:
When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to [Moses] in Midian: “Go, return to Egypt” (Exodos 4:19), “and Moses took his wife and his sons…” (Exodus 4:20), and Aaron went forth “and met him on the mount of God” (Exodus 4:27), [Aaron] said to [Moses]: “Who are these?” He replied, “This is my wife, whom I married in Midian, and these are my sons.” “And where are you taking them?” [Aaron] asked. “To Egypt,” he replied. [Aaron] said, “We are suffering with the first ones, and you come to add to them?” [Moses] said to [Tzipporah]: “Go home to your father.” She took her two sons and went away.
Aaron protested Moses bringing his family down to Egypt—there were already enough people suffering there! Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167), meanwhile, comments that it was Moses himself who sent his wife back home after the “incident at the inn”. Recall that on their way to Egypt:
… it came to pass on the way at the inn, that God met him, and sought to kill him. Then Tzipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: “Surely a bridegroom of blood you are to me.” (Exodus 4:24-25)
These difficult words require a great deal of explanation. Apparently, God sought to “kill” Moses, and Tzipporah saved him at the last second. The classic answer is that Moses’ second son, Eliezer, was born on the same day that Moses first ascended Sinai and met God through the Burning Bush. Moses spent a week on the mountain, meaning he returned on the eighth day—the time for Eliezer’s circumcision. Moses reasoned he needed to leave immediately, as God commanded, so he decided he would get going and do the circumcision at an inn on the way. When he arrived at the inn, he forgot about the circumcision! Tzipporah stepped in and got it done.
At this point, Moses realized that having his little children with him would probably be a distraction from his mission. The Or HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) explains that this is why Moses sent Tzipporah and the kids back to Midian. The problem for Tzipporah is that she missed out on the whole Exodus! Did she not deserve to be there as well? (A modern parent “stuck at home with the kids” can probably relate.) How would this lost opportunity be corrected? And what does it have to do with that circumcision at the inn? Why was it so important for the child to be circumcised at that very moment?
Tzipporah: Moses’ Successor
Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano (Rema miFano, 1548-1620) addresses the first problem in his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot (Likkutim, 3). He says how Tzipporah was deeply saddened that she had missed out on the Exodus, especially God’s miraculous salvation at the Splitting of the Sea, and the song that followed. So, God gave Tzipporah another chance. He had her soul reincarnated in Deborah the Prophetess and Judge! The “Judges”, Shoftim, starting with Joshua, were the successors of Moses, and the chief Jewish leaders of the era, before the time of Kings. Deborah was the fourth Judge of Israel after Moses.
When Deborah took the reins, Israel was being terribly oppressed by the Canaanite king Yavin and his mighty general Sisera, who rode with 900 undefeated iron chariots (Judges 4:2-3). Deborah summoned the warrior Barak to lead the Israelite forces against Sisera. Barak told her: “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.” (Judges 4:8) The commentators wonder why he insisted that she join him for the battle? In light of the Rema miFano’s teaching, we can understand the answer: Because she had missed it last time, Deborah needed to be there at this redemption, and see God’s miraculous salvation for herself.
Of course, just as with the Splitting of the Sea when there was a great song sung afterwards, Deborah also sang a song following the salvation from Sisera (Judges 5). In fact, Deborah’s song is the Haftarah that we read after the Song at the Sea in parashat Beshalach. The Sages make an explicit connection between the two redemptions. And the connection goes deeper.
At the Splitting of the Sea, the Torah tells us that 600 of Pharaoh’s chariots were drowned. In Deborah’s battle, Sisera’s 900 chariots were drowned as well, as we read: “The Kishon brook swept them away, that ancient brook, the brook Kishon…” (Judges 5:21) The Talmud (Pesachim 118b) asks what the connection is between these two sets of drowned chariots, and wonders why the Tanakh calls Kishon an “ancient” brook? It answers that after the drowning of the Egyptians at the Splitting of the Sea, the Israelites were still afraid and “of little faith”. So, God commanded the Sea (or, the angel in charge of the seas) to “spit out” the drowned Egyptians so that the Israelites would see their corpses. The Sea protested:
“Does a master make a gift to his servant and then take it back from him?!” [God answered with a promise:] “‘I will give you one and a half times their number.” [The Sea] replied: “Master of the Universe, can a servant claim [a debt] from his Master?!” [God answered:] “Let the brook of Kishon be surety for Me.” Right away, he spewed them forth on the dry land…
Many decades later, when Sisera came to battle Israel, his warriors went down
to cool off and refresh themselves in the brook of Kishon. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to the brook of Kishon: “Go and deliver your pledge.” Right away, the brook of Kishon swept them out and cast them into the sea, as it is said, “The Kishon brook swept them away, that ancient brook” [Judges 5:21]. What does “that ancient brook” mean? The brook that became a surety in ancient times.
And so, the battle with Sisera was a giant spiritual rectification. In the time of Moses, God made a promise to the Sea regarding a quantity of chariots. That promised was filled in the time of Deborah, who was a reincarnation of Moses’ wife Tzipporah. In the time of Moses, his wife Tzipporah missed a miraculous salvation, so she came back as Deborah to witness the spiritual continuation and fulfilment of that first salvation! She got to sing her own song, too, just as Moses did in the past. God made it up to Tzipporah in a big way—as Deborah, she was the Moses of her generation!
And what exactly had Tzipporah done to merit this? The Rema miFano answers:
“Then Tzipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son…” for this she merited to reincarnate in Deborah, and to sing a song through the Holy Spirit. She alluded to this when she said in her song “When locks of hair go untrimmed [bifroa peraot] in Israel…” [Judges 5:2] referring to periat milah [circumcision]…
For that huge mitzvah of circumcising her son and saving Moses’ life, Tzipporah earned the merit to come back as Deborah, lead an entire generation, and witness a miraculous salvation comparable to the Splitting of the Sea. That leaves one last question: why was it so absolutely vital for the child to be circumcised at that particular moment, so much so that God sought to “kill” Moses for not doing it?
The Two Eliezers
The son that Moses was supposed to circumcise at the inn was Eliezer. We know essentially nothing of this person. The Torah does not divulge any details at all about his life (he is only mentioned once, in this week’s parasha). However, there is one other person (and only one other person) in the Torah named Eliezer, and that was Abraham’s devoted servant. Of course, there are no coincidences in the Torah. So why did Moses’ son carry the same name as Abraham’s servant?
Abraham’s servant Eliezer was an exceedingly righteous individual. In fact, the Sages say he was one of only nine (or ten) people in history to avoid an earthly death and “enter Heaven alive” (Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:43). The Midrash famously states that when Abraham tasked Eliezer with finding a wife for Isaac, Eliezer had hoped that Isaac would be able to marry Eliezer’s own daughter. Although Eliezer certainly “converted” (as much as was possible then, before the Torah’s giving), he was nonetheless still impure because he was a Canaanite, cursed since the time of Noah. Abraham told him that as much as he would have liked Isaac to marry Eliezer’s daughter, the fact of the matter was that Eliezer still carried a curse: “You are cursed while my son is blessed, and cursed and blessed cannot go together,” Abraham said (Beresheet Rabbah 59:10).
The righteous Eliezer, too, needed a rectification. The Sages offer a number of explanations as to how his curse was eventually lifted. Eliezer wanted nothing more than to be a full-fledged Jew, blessed from birth. God made it happen: Eliezer the servant was reincarnated in Eliezer the son of Moses! Because of this, it was of tremendous importance that Eliezer the son of Moses be circumcised on the eighth day as required. This was the key to make Eliezer blessed and Jewish once and for all. His entire tikkun depended on it. We might now understand why Moses’ error was so grave, to such a degree that the Torah says God sought to eliminate him entirely! Tzipporah saved the day and merited an incredible rectification of her own. (It is worth mentioning that a part of Eliezer’s soul also reincarnated in Caleb, as the Arizal explains in a number of places.)
Everything comes full circle at the Sinai Revelation, in this week’s parasha. Eliezer the servant—now Eliezer the son of Moses—stands with all the Israelites at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 22b) states that it was at this very point when the zuhama—referring to all the curses and spiritual impurities, going all the way back to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden—were lifted and removed from all those that stood at Sinai. Eliezer’s tikkun was complete. Amazingly, Eliezer the servant alluded to this himself back in Genesis, as the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) beautifully points out (on Exodus 20:13):
The number of words [in the passage of the Ten Commandments] is 172 (עק״ב), which was alluded to by Eliezer [when he gifted Rebecca with jewellery] whose weight was a beka (בק״ע). And the two bracelets that he gave her hint to the Two Tablets. And their ten shekels of gold allude to the Ten Commandments…
By being a most devoted servant of Abraham, and bringing Isaac the perfect wife in lieu of his own daughter, Eliezer merited to stand at Sinai himself.